Paying for Attention: Abuse of Prescription ADHD Drugs Rising on College Campuses

Anything that helps your college student study longer and harder is a good thing, right? Not always, it turns out.

At campuses around the country, a growing number of students are abusing prescription ADHD medications. Students turn to the drugs so they can stay awake longer and focus more intently. Some also use them to get high. But although these drugs are considered safe when taken as prescribed, they can cause health problems and addiction when abused.

Attention on ADHD drugs

ADHD—short for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—is a common childhood disorder that sometimes lasts into adulthood. People with ADHD have problems paying attention, controlling behavior, or curbing hyperactivity. The medications most often used to treat ADHD are stimulants, which actually have a calming effect in those with the disorder. Two types of stimulant ADHD drugs are methylphenidate (for example, Ritalin) and amphetamines (for example, Adderall).

People who abuse stimulants may simply swallow pills, or they may snort or inject the contents. Taken improperly or by those without ADHD, stimulants rev up the brain and body. They can increase the ability to focus, reduce the need for sleep, and suppress appetite.

These effects come at a steep price, however. Stimulants also drive up blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature. At high doses, they can cause a stroke. With repeated use, stimulants can trigger feelings of hostility and paranoia. Plus, lack of sleep and nutrition can lead to health problems of their own.

If taken at doses or by methods other than those prescribed by a doctor, stimulants can be addictive. People who abuse the drugs for an extended period may have withdrawal symptoms—such as fatigue, depression, and sleep problems—when they stop.

Students don’t have to look far to find ADHD drugs. Most get them from a friend or family member with a prescription. In fact, studies have found that up to 29 percent of students with such prescriptions have been asked to give, sell, or trade their medication.

What parents can do

Just because your child is college age doesn’t mean your parenting days are over. Believe it or not, you still have influence. These steps can make a difference:

  • If your student takes a stimulant for ADHD, discuss it. Talk about the importance of using the medication only as prescribed and not sharing it.

  • If someone else in the family takes ADHD medication, monitor it. Keep tabs so you’ll know if any goes missing.

  • If you think your student might be abusing ADHD drugs, educate yourself. Watch for these warning signs in your child: going long periods without sleeping or eating, excessive activity, extreme talkativeness, an overly high mood, irritability, nervousness, or dilated pupils.